Netflix hasn’t been coy about its plans to take over Hollywood. The company has already said it could spend up to $8 billion on content this year alone. But, for all the awards House of Cards and Icarus rack up, one of the reasons Netflix has tasted success so rapidly is its streaming technology. That’s an area it has been perfecting in-house since 2010, when it became more than a simple mail-order DVD rental shop.
For Netflix, the tech is just as important as the storytelling. Regardless of how many shows or movies Netflix produces, it needs to ensure that its 118 million subscribers can watch them without issue — no matter where they are in the world, which smartphone they own or how fast their internet is. Netflix even recently re-encoded its entire catalog (said to be around 6,000 titles) to produce the best possible picture using the smallest amount of bandwidth, which was made possible by an AI technology it developed called Dynamic Optimizer.
During a tour of its Hollywood and Los Gatos headquarters, Netflix said that a typical episode of a show like Jessica Jones, which is roughly an hour long and is captured in 6K resolution, weighs in at 293GB of raw, unedited footage. That amounts to about 750 Mbps of data, which would basically kill your internet plan if you streamed it before it was compressed. The company says it used to be able to deliver content with “an enjoyable quality” at 750 Kbps, but last year it started using a new encoding framework that shrunk that to a mere 270 Kbps. In the real world, that means that if you have a 4GB data plan, you can watch 26 hours of Netflix per month, up from just 10 hours before. These improvements are especially important for developing regions where Netflix is trying to grow its business — particularly in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.
Of course, Netflix isn’t the only one trying to develop the best streaming tech possible. BAMTech, the startup created by Major League Baseball’s Advanced Media and now owned by Disney, takes credit for being the first to stream in 60fps and in 4K. And its technology has such a solid reputation that it powers many of the most popular streaming services, including HBO Go, WWE Network and MLB.tv. Disney will join that list when it launches its own offering in 2019, which is setting up to be a major challenger to Netflix, with cheaper monthly fees, a library full of popular titles and BAMTech’s engine under the hood.
The quality of streams counts for only so much, however, and Netflix is well aware of this. As such, the company says its other main focus is to provide the filmmakers it works with the necessary tools “to create content at a high level, then distribute that around the world.” Netflix says that most of its original shows and movies are being shot in 6K — though it’s only delivering that picture in 4K right now. Still, not only does this allow it to be ahead of the curve (others, like HBO, stream only in 1080p), but it gives Netflix the ability to future-proof its content.
Netflix has also been a big proponent of high dynamic range, which delivers richer colors and deeper blacks. The company now has more than 300 hours of HDR programming, but it says the challenge is to not make content only look good on high-end TVs. Everything Netflix makes and streams needs to be just as perfect whether you’re watching on an iPhone X, a Galaxy S9 or an older, entry-level smartphone.
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